April 21, 2015 / 10:41 PM / in 3 years

White House seeks Silicon Valley help on strong yet breakable encryption

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Obama administration hopes Silicon Valley technologists can think of a system with strong encryption that could be pierced legally by one party without opening the door to others, a White House official said on Tuesday.

White House cybersecurity policy coordinator Michael Daniel said at the annual RSA Conference on security that he is trying to set starting principles for a broad public discussion on the issue, which has been a major source of tension with technology companies and other cyber experts.

A panel of experts convened by the administration following leaks by former U.S. intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden called on the government to promote strong encryption and stop trying to subvert it by surreptitious means, arguing that U.S. companies would bring in less revenue overseas if privacy protections were suspect.

But the White House has yet to adopt that stand, and senior intelligence officials including FBI Director James Comey have faulted Apple Inc and Google Inc for ramping up encryption post-Snowden.

In a meeting with a handful of reporters, Daniel was asked whether or not he could name a respected technology figure who believed it possible to have strong encryption that could be circumvented by just one party’s legal authority.

“I don’t have any off the top my head,” Daniel said, but added that if any place could come up with an answer, it would be the “enormously creative” Silicon Valley.

After the White House sets principles, factoring in national and economic security, and privacy, Daniel said he would want to engage with technology companies, heavy encryption users in the financial sector, other industries and other countries.

Ultimately, he said, there might not be a solution.

“It is one of the most challenging issues I have in my portfolio,” Daniel said. “Every aspect of it is challenging.”

After a similar debate two decades ago, the Clinton administration abandoned the “Clipper Chip,” which likewise attempted to mandate lawful access on new technology.

During separate events at RSA Security LLC’s conference, Daniel and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Silicon Valley could help manage the trade-off between security and privacy needs.

Editing by Grant McCool

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